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Monday, April 13, 2015

Birth of an Activist

by Janis Patterson

I can’t stand it any more. I have become an activist.

I cannot bear the unending mangling of our beautiful language, or the overwhelmingly blatant demonstrations of ignorance that surround us daily. Now I rarely go out without being armed with my trusty Marks-A-Lot™ with which I gleefully commit corrective acts of sabotage.

Nor am I alone. After starting a loosely knit organization called 5/A (also known as the American Association Against Apostrophe Abuse) I have discovered that there are others who dislike the grammatical ignorance that is so prevalent today. We are few in number, but growing.

My main target is usually the grocery store, because that’s where it all began. One day while I was shopping there was a spotty youth writing a sign for bananas. I remember it exactly – Banana’s – 49 cents. (Of course, he used the cents sign, which has sadly disappeared from all modern keyboards.) I asked him, which banana’s what did he mean?

He looked at me as if I were mad. “These bananas,” he said politely enough. I then explained that it wasn’t true – what he was writing was a singular possessive, which meant something (so far unstated) that belonged to one of the bananas present. After a few more moments of enlightening conversation he turned tail and ran for his manager.

The manager was kind, very soothing and thanked me for bringing the matter to his attention – employees are usually very kind to strong-minded older ladies with canes – then brought out a new card and, as a concession to customer relations, wrote Bananas’ – 49 cents. He couldn’t understand why I started laughing, albeit somewhat hysterically. Neither did he understand it when I patiently explained the difference between singular possessive, plural possessive and simple plural.

I still shopped there for several years afterward, though I swear when they saw me coming all the stock boys grabbed their sign-making materials and ran for the back. No one ever said a word when I corrected their signs with my trusty marker, either. I should drop back by, though, and see if they have improved any – I don’t shop there any more, as the store is in Dallas. Ever since the demagogues in the city council forced that idiotic and unwanted plastic bag ban down the citizens’ throats I try not to shop in Dallas at all, preferring not to let whatever sales tax I spend go to support such stupidity. For what it’s worth, judging from the increase in traffic in the stores of the satellite cities, I’m not alone in that, either!

Nor is my educational zeal limited to grocery stores. There was a lovely shop with a huge parking lot bearing a sign Customer’s Parking. I finally called them, asking if one needed to make an appointment in order to shop in their store. They answered of course not and gave me their open hours. I then asked where I could park close by, as their sign made it obvious their parking lot was restricted to one customer at a time. After I explained and again asked where I could park that would be within their stated limitations – and without relying on luck that I would be the sole customer at any given moment – they hung up on me. Apparently some people just do not care to learn what is correct. I never did shop there. There is justice, however, because they went out of business not long after. Apparently grammar does count!

And it should – language is perhaps the highest development of humankind. It is what allows us to communicate not only with each other, but with generations yet to come. It should be exact, for it conveys information that can and should be understood forever. Perhaps a misplaced apostrophe or wandering comma in itself is no great solecism, but the greatest rents start with the tiniest of holes and before long the entire fabric can become shredded and useless. As writers we are the guardians of not only of language, but of the concept and execution of language, and both deserve our best.


Jacqueline Seewald said...

As a former English teacher, I am applauding you! In the early years, grammar and spelling were part of the curriculum. I for one always saw the benefits of teaching students how to diagram sentences. Later on, teaching grammar especially at the high school level went out of fashion. Thereafter, students were expected to write but without actually getting a sound foundation.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Very droll. And a lovely way to begin Monday in New England. Thanks for taking the time to organize your 5/A group and lead it into battle. But you do know, I hope, that you are fighting a lost cause. No? Wait till you get to commas.

Alice Duncan said...

And it's not just the death of the English language that I mourn. It's the death of simple math skills. I went to the store the other day, ordered 3/4 of a pound of something, and the woman dipped me out approximately a third of that, and didn't understand when I explained that no, 7/5 of a pound isn't over a pound. But I guess mutilated English, and especially misplaced apostrophes bother me the most. Loved this blog! I should start carrying a marking pen with me, too :-)

Rose Anderson said...

I enjoyed the post. :)

Anne Marie Becker said...

LOL. I see signs like that and just laugh. Silly people. They are everywhere, aren't they? Good luck with your cause, though I do feel it may be a losing battle. Sigh.

Cathy Perkins said...

I'm with Anne Marie - cringe/groan/laugh

When did education become about entertaining students rather than giving them the building blocks to succeed in any field? Grammar is boring - who cares. Math basics are boring - we can use a calculator.

How to you grasp more complex concepts if you never understand the basics?

Grumble over. Apparently I need more coffee ;)

Marjo said...

I agree. How can you understand complex concepts if the building blocks have not been grasped?

Jan Christensen said...

Laughed out loud. You go, girl!

Morgan Mandel said...

Word's spell check also has no idea about the difference between it's and its.

Sheery Hall said...

Amen! I get so ticked off when I see people who claim to be educated using incorrect grammar. I far too often see 'your welcome' instead of the correct "you're welcome." I correct my kids when I see them making these sorts of mistakes. My oldest has said, "It doesn't matter, mommy. They don't say anything about it at school." This makes me so sad and angry!

A.J. Cattapan said...

Funny post! As a middle school English teacher, I see a lot of apostrophe abuse. God save us!

Heidi Schussman said...

I actually had a proofreader of my recent novel make corrections of its to it's because he didn't know they are DIFFERENT. My goodness...what's this world coming to? Sign me up for 5A! I'm on a rampage...

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